Brexit: Watson's 'referendum before election' call gains momentum

Ben Gartside
Labour deputy leader Tom Watson speaks at a People's Vote rally in Parliament Square, in London on 23 March. Photo: Isabel Infantes/AFP/Getty

The Brexit policy advocated by Labour deputy leader Tom Watson is gaining momentum among backbenchers, despite it being at odds with the partyʼs current position.

Watson said last week that any confirmatory referendum must happen in advance of an election, contradicting Labour policy for one to be held after an election.

However, pro-Remain Labour MPs are supportive of the move. One shadow minister told Yahoo Finance UK: “A referendum first would be best so this can be resolved and the country can move on. Then we can have an election on everything else.”

Those on the Labour backbench are also favouring Watson’s approach over Corbyn’s.

Watson’s calculation is simple – with the Conservative party rising in the polls and a potential pact with the Brexit party – the likelihood of a majority of MPs supporting a further referendum after an election is slim.

However it is still unclear how a new referendum would pass the Commons as it is now. Despite the addition of over a dozen newly independent MPs following the Conservative party removing their whip, winning their votes would be insufficient, and is unlikely to happen.

Second, with the “MPs for a Deal” campaign seeking to push a slightly different version of Theresa May’s Brexit bill, MPs in favour of a soft Brexit may lose the will to back a People’s Vote.

Despite this, pro-Remain Labour MPs support the move, given the party’s downturn in the polls.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, left, with deputy leader Tom Watson during last year's party conference in Liverpool, England. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP

However, a source close to a senior shadow cabinet minister termed the support “stupid”.

“In pure policy terms it's basically indefensibly stupid to be honest. There is absolutely no majority for a [second referendum] in this parliament, and even if there was it wouldn't be able to prop up any kind of coherent government for long enough to pass incredibly controversial second referendum legislation.”

Besides policy questions, there is still a deep scepticism towards the organisational strategy of the People’s Vote campaign. One team member told Yahoo Finance UK that he questioned the press rollout of the campaign, which ran exclusively on a national daily’s online edition, and another in turn questioned the ability for the People’s Vote campaign to deliver the numbers needed to pass any bill.

One backbench Labour MP said: “They’ve told us before they had a majority; and that Amber [Rudd] would endorse and she didn’t.”

While still campaigning hard, many inside of the People’s Vote team believe that the movement is reaching the beginning of the end, and remaining in the EU is unlikelier than ever.